Will Gray

Gray Matter: F1′s new American challenge

The Circuit of the Americas race track in Austin, Texas

Formula One returns to the United States this weekend with renewed momentum — but after so many failed attempts to take the sport to the American mainstream can it finally come up trumps?

Formula One has been trying to crack America ever since the world championship was created, back in 1950. It has built a strong fanbase there, but so far it has never gone mainstream. Not yet, anyway.

America's first appearance on the F1 calendar was when the sport embedded the Indy 500 as part of the world championship — but as a completely different type of competition few of the F1 teams elected to take part in it.

It was not until 1959 that a 'real' Grand Prix was run in the US, at Sebring in 1959. The race moved to Riverside the next year and then one year later moved to Watkins Glen, its first long-term home, where it ran for 20 years.

A second American race was set up in 1976, at Long Beach California, and that had a popular eight-year run. During this time, one of F1's worst ever venues, Caesar's Palace, also hosted two races in a Las Vegas car park and Detroit also launched in 1982 — a year when America hosted three of the 16 races on the calendar.

Dallas hosted a one-off race in 1984 and when Detroit ended in 1988, Phoenix took over for three years before fading interest saw the race dropped after 1991. The race's return in 2000 aimed to crack the nation by taking F1 back to the home of US open-wheel motorsport, Indy, but on a road course. It lasted seven years.

It's now five years since the last F1 race in the United States, and alot has happened since then — with a new purpose-built track and big changes to the F1 competition format. Which is why there could just be a genuine chance to finally suit the mainstream fans' taste.

If reports are to be believed, the new track will be one of the best. Although many berate its designer, Herman Tilke, for his 'boring' designs, he has learned from the past and his most recent circuits have gone down well.

Mark Webber has already declared the track "probably one of the best" for challenging the drivers, with a combination of high-speed flicks, long fast corners and twisty unbalancing sections. There are echoes of Maggotts/Becketts from Silverstone and Turkey's famous Turn Eight to name a couple.

As for the format, the last time F1 was in America, it had the dull single-lap qualifying sessions rather than the existing three-round knockout solution and KERS boost and DRS were not even thought of.

It's those kinds of entertainment boosters that engage all fans — not just Americans but fans all over the world — and this year's races have certainly been producing some exciting action.

The only hope is that it is not all too new to bed in at the first attempt — because this weekend needs to dazzle like never before to retain the attention of the wider American public.

Pirelli has gone conservative with medium and hard compounds, because tyre wear is so unknown. But if the surface is not so hard wearing, the tyre effect — which has brought so much drama this season - could be negated.

Preparation is another unknown because although all teams have done simulations for suspension settings, downforce levels, gear ratios, braking systems and overall baseline set-up, there will be lots of work to do on Friday and if one team finds the secret and steps out ahead then the wheel-to-wheel racing that is needed may not happen.

The championship battle is tense, with 10 points between the top two, and the title could be won here if Vettel can take 15 points more than Alonso.

But that's not going to engage new fans — because by definition they don't have a clue who's winning what title, all they care about is good entertainment.

So, while the ingredients are there, F1 has a big job to do this weekend to finally show mainstream USA what it's made of...